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Juveniles in adult courts: Moving in the opposite direction

California is moving in the opposite direction of the rest of the nation when it comes to transferring juveniles into adult court systems.  California's practice of filing juvenile cases in adult court is not congruent with the efforts of many states that are removing youth from adult criminal justice system, strengthening juvenile courts, and changing their transfer laws to ensure youth offenders remain in the juvenile system.   A new report from the national Campaign for Youth Justice finds that, "in the past five years, 15 states have changed their state laws, with at least nine additional states with active policy reform efforts underway. These changes are occurring in all regions of the country, spearheaded by state and local officials of both major parties and supported by a bipartisan group of governors."  

So why is California moving in the opposite direction?

California prosecutors received unprecedented discretion to file juvenile cases in the adult court system with their successful campaign to pass Proposition 21 in 2000.  This ballot initiative overturned the legal precedence that required juvenile court judges to approve transferring a youth offender's case into the adult system. It also expanded the number of offenses that required direct transfer to adult court under Welfare and Institutions Code 602(b), called "mandatory transfers".  Once in adult court, youth offenders face sentences to full criminal terms, including life in prison.

It is well documented that juvenile felony arrests in California peaked in 1974 and had decreased by 41% through 1999.  Juveniles were committing less violent crime and less overall crime in California, yet the campaign waged by the district attorneys association (CDAA) convinced voters that more drastic measures were needed to ensure public safety.  The pubic was especially sensitized to these messages after the Columbine, CO school shooting in 1999.

CJCJ analysis has demonstrated that since 2000, prosecutors vary greatly in their use of their new powers under Prop 21.  A 2012 report found that the vast majority of direct file use from 2003-2010 is attributable to 10 large-sized counties that also use the state's youth correctional facilities, the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), at rates that are significantly above the state average.  Some counties have restrained their use of direct filing.  San Francisco, for example, utilizes adult direct filings at a rate that is 100 times less than some of the counties with the highest direct file rates.  The county chooses to make use of local alternatives and sanctions within the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, rather than transferring youth into the adult court system.

Criminal justice experts across the state concur that Proposition 21 shifted the long-time focus of the juvenile justice system from prevention and rehabilitation to incarceration and punishment.  County juvenile justice systems continue to provide the best resources for turning young lives around, thereby promoting long-term public safety and positive youth outcomes. The Campaign for Youth Justice report argues that county juvenile justice systems actually hold youth more accountable for their crimes than the adult system noting,

"The juvenile justice system often requires that youth attend school, pay community and victim restitution, and receive the counseling, mentoring, and training they need to turn their lives around. The adult justice system completely fails those youth who would benefit from the services of the juvenile system by letting them 'slip through the cracks.'"

The vast disparities between county practices show that district attorneys have a broad discretion in how they exercise their new powers under Prop 21.    California needs to align with itself national trends and reduce the number of youth transferred to adult court.  This can be accomplished by increasing the capacity of counties to effectively serve more high-risk and high-need youth offenders locally,  thereby providing prosecutors with more alternatives to adult court sanctions.

Keywords: Brian Heller de Leon, Proposition 21, state policy

Posted in Blog, Justice by Geography, Sentencing

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